The Cubs Just Can’t Find a Leadoff Hitter by Craig Edwards April 18, 2018 If you were to examine the relationship between the matters about which fans most complain and the relevance of those matters to actual wins and losses, you’d likely find that lineup construction produces the weakest correlation. Who starts and who sits matters a lot. Bullpen management can make a real difference on a club’s record. Generally, though, the precise location of a hitter in the batting order doesn’t amount to much. Take the Cubs as an example. Chicago’s leadoff hitters batted .246/.324/.422 with a 94 wRC+ last year, which isn’t ideal production from one of the most important spots in the lineup. The team still managed to average more than five runs per game, though — and even if they completely optimized their lineup, it likely wouldn’t have netted the team much more than 10 extra runs over the entire course of the season. Now, 10 runs isn’t nothing: over the course of the year, a close playoff race might turn on that margin. And while the Cubs might have left runs on the table, this actually probably isn’t a case where the manager — in this case, Joe Maddon — is actually to blame. Finding a leadoff hitter for the Cubs has proven to be a difficult proposition. Consider how the team performed last season by batting-order spot. Kris Bryant mostly batted second, Anthony Rizzo mostly batted third, followed by a mix of cleanup hitters including Willson Contreras, Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, and a few others. Everywhere else, the Cubs were mostly average, especially if one regards the eighth and ninth spots as one given Maddon’s habit of sometimes batting the pitcher eighth. Such a disparity between the leadoff spot and hitters two through four is actually pretty common. MLB teams recorded a collective 99 wRC+ out of the leadoff spot last year while producing a 112 wRC+ in the next three spots. If suboptimal, it’s also not unusual. A year ago, we were discussing a new type of leadoff hitter in the Kyle Schwarber mold, but it didn’t really hold. It especially didn’t hold for Schwarber, who started slowly. Here are the players who received at least 30 plate appearances at the position last season and how they performed in that position: Cubs Leadoff Hitters in 2017 Name Leadoff PA Leadoff OBP Leadoff SLG Leadoff wRC+ Overall wRC+ Jon Jay 239 .325 .350 77 101 Ben Zobrist 182 .330 .438 100 82 Kyle Schwarber 173 .312 .381 83 102 Anthony Rizzo 59 .373 .680 158 133 Ian Happ 39 .333 .606 134 113 It’s not really Joe Maddon’s fault that Kyle Schwarber got off to an awful start last season or that Jon Jay performed far worse than normal. Ian Happ wasn’t on the major-league roster for part of the year, and expecting him to produce right away would have been a mistake. Anthony Rizzo’s power profiles better with runners on base. The same is true for Kris Bryant. The Cubs’ next-best hitter after Bryant and Rizzo is Willson Contreras. His batting line might be conducive to hitting leadoff — and it is a discussion worth revisiting — but he’s generally a poor baserunner despite an above-average sprint speed. Jason Heyward hasn’t gotten it together at the plate while a Cub, and Addison Russell has yet to blossom as a hitter. Javy Baez is just an average hitter with a below-average on-base percentage. Albert Almora Jr. is projected as a below-average bat. Finding an ideal candidate to hit leadoff for the Cubs has been difficult since the team allowed Dexter Fowler to depart via free agency after their championship season. As for what an ideal leadoff hitters looks like, I still refer to this Sky Kalkman piece that is now nearly a decade old. The old-school book says to put a speedy guy up top. Power isn’t important, and OBP is nice, but comes second to speed. The Book says OBP is king. The lead-off hitter comes to bat only 36% of the time with a runner on base, versus 44% of the time for the next lowest spot in the lineup, so why waste homeruns? The lead-off hitter also comes to the plate the most times per game, so why give away outs? As for speed, stealing bases is most valuable in front of singles hitters, and since the top of the order is going to be full of power hitters, they’re not as important. The lead-off hitter is one of the best three hitters on the team, the guy without homerun power. Speed is nice, as this batter will have plenty of chances to run the bases with good hitters behind him. In the early going of the 2018 campaign, Joe Maddon has opted to use Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ in a platoon at the top of the lineup, with the switch-hitting Happ batting from the left side against righties and Almora Jr. batting from the right side against lefties. While Happ’s spring provided some optimism that he would break out after a solid debut, he’s striking out a ridiculous rate. While that trend isn’t likely to continue, neither Almora Jr. nor Happ — even with the platoon advantage — project to get on base a ton or profile as one of the Cubs’ four or five best hitters. That makes them poor candidates to lead off. Here are the Cubs’ current projections for hitters the rest of the season. It is easy to see why finding a leadoff hitter is hard. Cubs Hitter Projections in 2018 Name PA AVG OBP SLG wOBA Kris Bryant 595 .281 .392 .528 .388 Anthony Rizzo 588 .272 .386 .520 .382 Kyle Schwarber 475 .234 .333 .486 .346 Willson Contreras 495 .270 .346 .453 .341 Ben Zobrist 498 .260 .352 .407 .329 Ian Happ 531 .245 .316 .458 .327 Jason Heyward 512 .262 .339 .401 .321 Addison Russell 544 .245 .321 .422 .316 Javier Baez 553 .254 .308 .456 .315 Albert Almora Jr. 192 .270 .309 .413 .308 In terms of completely optimizing the lineup, Maddon deserves praise for hitting Kris Bryant second. On the other hand, there might be some advantage to batting Anthony Rizzo fourth, not third, while there’s also an argument to hit Rizzo and Bryant first and second (although that seems less realistic). As for who should bat leadoff, the best options appear to be Contreras, Schwarber, and potentially Ben Zobrist. Happ doesn’t get on base enough, and the rest of the players listed here aren’t strong enough hitters to deserve that placement. The Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment failed last year not because Schwarber wasn’t a good candidate for the spot, but because he didn’t hit enough. If Ben Zobrist continues his rebound from last season, he might be a consideration for the spot — particularly against lefties — but the two best candidates for the job are the most unorthodox by body type. Neither Contreras nor Schwarber are burners, but they should get on base and hit well, which is the most important thing a batter could do. Putting Contreras in a leadoff role also might help him avoid hitting into double plays, which was an issue last season and unlikely to stop given his ground-ball tendencies. The Cubs might not have found a replacement for Dexter Fowler, but unless they believe Ian Happ is one of the best hitters on the team, he shouldn’t be occupying the top spot in the lineup. If the team still believes in Happ, it is fair to leave him there, but the projections and his big-league performance from last year and this year indicate he might not be the best fit.